The Civil War’s Most Chicken General
Imagine, for a moment, that it is 1862 and you are Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, the Union’s premier fighting force. The Confederate Army, led by Robert E. Lee, has just invaded Maryland. As you’re preparing your strategy for checking Lee’s advance, a message arrives at headquarters: A corporal from Indiana has found an envelope lying in a field near enemy lines. Inside are three cigars. Oh, and a copy of Lee’s Special Order No. 191, detailing his invasion plan and revealing that the Confederate general has split his force in two, a daring move that has left his army dangerously exposed to attack. You’re George McClellan—beloved by your soldiers, tasked by your commander-in-chief with destroying Lee’s army. What do you do?
Smoke the cigars, obviously . But after that? If you answered, Attack with all possible speed, by god!, you have a lot to learn from Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution. As its title suggests, the book sets out to show how the nature of the war changed during Lee’s Maryland campaign, which culminated in the famously bloody Battle of Antietam. Up until that point in the war, powerful men on both sides of the conflict believed that a negotiated peace might be hammered out. But after 3,600 Americans died fighting outside a farming village on the banks of Antietam Creek, Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, a radical document that ended any hope of reconciliation. In the wake of Antietam, the Union would fight an all-out war of subjugation, with the goal of crushing the rebellion beneath its Yankee boot and ending the institution of slavery by force.
Slotkin, a historian and a writer of historical fiction, offers an absorbing account of this evolution. But the central figure of The Long Road to Antietam isn’t the author of the Emancipation Proclamation; it’s a man who openly opposed it—George McClellan. Vainglorious but insecure, power-hungry but risk-averse, a Democrat fighting a Republican’s war, McClellan is arguably the Civil War’s most fascinating figure and certainly its most frustrating. In McClellan, Slotkin finds an embodiment of the thinking that Lincoln repudiated with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, namely the idea that the South should be compelled to rejoin the Union, but allowed to preserve its peculiar institution. Unfortunately for Lincoln, McClellan was also the Union’s best hope for delivering a battlefield victory big enough to give the president the political capital required to issue such a controversial proclamation. Reading deeply and thoughtfully through McClellan’s correspondence—the general didn’t so much as trim his moustache without first dropping a line to his wife Mary Ellen—Slotkin paints a detailed portrait of the talented but flawed general who helped Lincoln bring about his revolution, if ever so unwillingly.